To vectorise or squeegee?

The modern gig poster is in the midst of a digital rebirth, but demand is still driven by the appeal of analogue craft

Over the last 30 years the gig poster has been enjoying a revival, its relatively recent success in the mainstream complemented by the emergence of digital technologies. Walking through the stalls at Flatstock 33, the American Poster Institute’s exhibition at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, there were signs that the hand-crafted conventions of the screen-printed poster are continuing within a new, digital practice. These trends call into question how we frame the cultural value and authenticity of this kind of work, when the very ideas of history and culture have themselves become styles and palette swatches.

The API and Flatstock community is a tight-knit club. Many of these artists work with little pay and even less recognition; they toil to serve the music they love and the music fans love them for it. Resisting capitalist impulses, many poster artists have become modern day folk artists battling within DIY expressionism. But the introduction of technology, which allows the fast production and reproduction of posters, has offered a shortcut to success for the business savvy. It has also presented the artist with a choice: whether to create in complete freedom, or to sell their work to an audience. This audience has a taste for ‘vintage’ and a set of particular expectations of the work: value is judged on the limited numbers produced and the amount of runs under the squeegee.

This may explain the prevalence of the vector poster covered in vector ‘mess’ and the layered textures of digitised ‘age’ and ‘charm’ applied on screen. Once screen-printed, these elements become analogue and obtain the required ‘unique’ quality that ensures a sale (naïve, mid-century geometry and Cassandre-style Art Deco abound). And while illustrators borrowing from visual ideologies or transforming historical imagery into faddish style is nothing new, this kind of referencing is important to bear in mind when looking at the cultural value of an artwork.

“Everything we do ends up in the computer at some point,” says Jason Teegarden-Downs of Delicious Design League. “We do a lot of stuff by hand but then scan it in and manipulate it. We’re believers in technology and with it we’re able to get from point A to point B more quickly. We have a library of textures that we use to emulate ‘hand done’, other times we might do some vector art, print it out, distress it and scan it back in again. People like the vintage, mid-century modern aesthetic, the ready-aged. But I’m sure if the poster artists of the past had these tools, they would have used them too.”

Technology has supplied this opportunity and it has been embraced. The accessible art of tracing, drawing and layering digitally has meant a shift away from judging a poster at face value. At Flatstock, all but two artists printed their work by silkscreen, regardless of whether it was from a digital or analogue origin.

Poster artists Dan Stiles and Dan MacAdam both work with digital technology, but do so in very different ways. Stiles uses Illustrator specifically for the clean, mathematical lines that have become characteristic of his style. “I love the look and feel of a screen print; you can’t properly emulate that with a digital print,” he says. “I feel that a lot of digital stuff is disingenuous. Hitting Command+P is not nearly as cool, it’s not a piece of art, it’s just a reproduction – there’s nothing original about it.” For MacAdam, of Crosshair studio, digital processes enable him to meticulously deconstruct his images. His ‘hack’ photographs of rural, suburban and industrial buildings, which he alters and augments with text in Photoshop, are then separated and screen-printed with as many as 17 colours. “The screen prints look infinitely better than the raw shots,” he says. “Printing in this way means I have the opportunity to micromanage everything about the image.”

But there are other artists like Minneapolis’ Dan Black and Jess Seamans of Landland, who avoid using computers altogether, except for colour separations. Most of Landland’s type is drawn by hand, while their layered textures are created with watercolour paints, infusing warmth and depth without textured swatches.

Chicago-based Sonnenzimmer is perhaps the most striking example of how the gig poster’s ‘digital renaissance’ can mean less about convenience and more about the addition of a new, potentially exciting tool to the artists’ palette. The studio’s Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi’s approach is distinctive but never formulated, an intersection of the accidental splatterings of printmaking and the constrained form, grid and typography of a Swiss catalogue. They believe in a cultivated, human translation of visual elements and use the computer as a production tool to this end. “We use the computer as a paste-up, a pattern-maker,” they explain. “Everything is laid out twice and retranslated. We scan in, mock up, print out on transparency and then look at scale, mount up and move it around. We never output 1:1.”

The studio’s use of digital technology and type is contrasted with an exciting, progressive interpretation of a classic format. And this makes them stand out in a room of vectorised ageing and village fête charm. The mainstream demand for this look, says Butcher, is just “faux nostalgia for a time they never lived in and have no connection to. These mid-century posters were in the context of a bigger cultural shift. Now, old math book covers are source material; you can recreate the artwork and just put a band name on it.” For Nakanishi, it’s important to recognise ‘vintage’ as a contemporary idea, a concept synonymous with good taste. “It’s work judged in the vintage notion of nostalgia – Modernism in America is a [lifestyle] accessory,” she says. “When you understand that, these posters begin to make sense. Popular opinion values it because it’s homegrown. You can’t underestimate the American connection to Americana.”

As Sonnenzimmer’s work shows, an awareness of a poster’s technological credentials is important – the increased use of digital processes is much more than simply a reaction to analogue elitism. The promise that new technologies can merge sympathetically with the valued traditions of the past is where contemporary poster art can present us with something that is truly new.

Bonnie Abbott is a print designer based in Melbourne. Together with designer Aimee Jay she blogs at double-days.com and runs online design journal gatherandfold.com

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